After nearly three months there are some real basketball things to talk about, but for Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, his team and his coaching staff, the fine details of the NBA’s return-to-play plans have mostly remained secondary.
Front and centre instead have been long conversations about a moment in history – the gruesome death of George Floyd while under the knee of since-fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the subsequent global protest movement it sparked — that is at once tragic and hopeful; that no one wants to let go to waste.
“There’s been very little, if any at all, talk about basketball,” Nurse said on a conference call on Tuesday. “I think we must have had four team-wide calls before we got to a quick 10-minute one yesterday to say, ‘this is this possible re-start, we’ve just given you kind of a heads-up here…’
“[Otherwise] we’ve really been entrenched on the issue — making sure everyone’s okay, everyone’s safe, listening to their ideas and thoughts. As tragic as all this is — it’s been going on for a long time — there is a historic opportunity to make some lasting change and I think we all have to take part in that.”
Nurse is enthusiastically backing an initiative by the NBA coaches association to address systemic racism – “we want to dig in there and start formulating some action now” — and said he feels closer to his own team after calls in which various players and members of the staff shared their own racially charged encounters with police.
“If all of us haven’t learned something here recently then we’re not paying attention very well. I think that’s the first thing,” he said. “…[But] I guess when you get to learn more about a person and what they’ve been through, it always helps you in your empathy toward what they’ve been through and what they’re going through. And then you can always be there to listen again in the future.”
In the midst of everything, the future seems destined to include NBA basketball as well, with the league recently confirming plans to reconvene the 2019-20 regular season with 22 teams within a so-called ‘Quarantine Bubble’ at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. There will be an eight-game conclusion to the regular season scheduled to begin July 31, followed by a traditional four-round playoff that will decide an NBA champion sometime in early October.
For the record, Nurse likes his team’s chances. The Raptors were 46-18 and in second place in the East – third overall — when play was halted on March 11 after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The situation may be unprecedented, but Nurse believes if anything it should favour a mature, experienced team with proven chemistry like the defending 2019 champions.
“You’re going to have to try to keep an extra positive attitude for starters and you’re going to have to go with the flow a little bit and understand going in that this is going to be different,” said Nurse. “However, I’m going to probably harp on some of the same things I always harp on – we’re a good team at home, we’re a good team on the road, we don’t really care where we have to play. That means we ought to be good [on a neutral court].
“And I think this team loves to play, we love to compete, we love to try to figure things out, and at the end of the day, with everything else that’s going on, when you finally get [to Disney World] and the ball goes up, can you laser focus in and get the job at hand done?”
It’s almost certain the Raptors will finish the “regular season” with what would have been a top-four seed in the East. The Milwaukee Bucks have first place almost locked up, but Toronto has a three-game advantage on third-place Boston and is 5.5 games up on fourth-place Miami – but it won’t come with a home-court advantage.
There has been some discussion about the higher seeds being given some kind of reward that home court would have otherwise conferred – an extra coach’s challenge or an extra possession or two during the game – but nothing has been finalized yet.
Nurse isn’t sweating it.
“Are we disappointed? We worked hard to get a high seed and home-court advantage, but I don’t know how much home court affected things last year,” he said. “If you want me to be honest, the Finals seemed to affect it. I felt like having Game 1 of the Finals at home was a big deal and we played well and after Game 1, we realized we were better, and we were gonna win [the championship].
“Now, nobody proceeded to win a home game after that, so that might shoot a hole in my theory there. But I would say I was surprised – and you can only know what your own team is feeling – but it didn’t seem to make any difference to us, or it didn’t feel any different playing home or away. Now is it awesome playing at home at Scotiabank? Yes it is. But when you’re competing, it’s pretty awesome to go into Philadelphia or Orlando or Golden State and win there. That’s an awesome feeling, too. So I don’t really buy into it very much.”
If he were to be asked for a suggestion on how to provide higher seeds with an edge, however, the much-travelled Nurse has an idea, even if he delivers it with his tongue firmly in cheek:
“I love telling this story. In the Belgian National Cup, they let in every team in the country from every division. In the first division [where Nurse was coaching] the guys are pretty good; the guys are getting paid. But it falls off pretty quickly after that, [to] second, third division [and] fourth where guys are just playing at night when they get home from [work or] whatever,” he said.
“So, when you draw a team [from a lower division] they get 10 points to start the game for every division they are lower than you. I was only there one year, and we drew a fourth division team, so they got 30 points.
“It was 30-0 on the scoreboard before the game started and we’re on the road in this little gym with cement floors and of course they came out bombing threes and it was 39-2. We finally took the lead with like 1:15 to go in the game. We ended up winning the Belgian Cup but the first round we almost got knocked out.
“So, I’m promoting that rule for the higher seed to get 10 or 20 or 30 points to start games. That’s my suggestion to [NBA commissioner Adam] Silver, but I haven’t heard back from him yet.
“I love that story. I’ve [coached] 1,000 games, but I remember that one.”
It’s been a long and tumultuous three months and a particularly trying past two weeks, but there’s always a good time for a basketball story, especially with the promise of more to come.